By Danny Freels
Known primarily for its four-mile- long boardwalk, glitz, glamour and gaming (Caesars, Trump, Bally’s and Harrah’s are among the many casinos here), Atlantic City has a surprisingly long history with golf. Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer are just a few of the Hall of Famers that have teed it up in the AC area. And even though New Jersey is not a very big state, it’s quite impressive how many big-time tournaments have been held there — including three U.S. Open Championships. During a recent visit to Atlantic City, I learned the odds of me playing some exceptional golf courses were better than good. They were very good.
Less than 10 miles west of downtown, in Northfield, sits one of the Garden State’s most respected courses: Atlantic City Country Club. Founded in 1897 and originally designed by John Reid (a New Yorker who was one of the earliest proponents of golf in America), ACCC is as quirky and as fun as you’d expect of a course this old. It’s also “flush” with history. In 1902, Australian Walter Travis won the United States Amateur Championship at ACCC. In 1911, the club’s head professional, Johnny McDermott, became the first American to win the U.S. Open. Three U.S. Women’s Opens have also been held at Atlantic City Country Club (won by “Babe” Zaharias, Carol Mann and Sandra Palmer), as well as, in 1980, the inaugural event of what would become the Champions Tour (won by Don January). The list of course architects that have worked at
ACCC over the years is also a “who’s who” of golf, including Willie Park Jr., Howard Toomey and William Flynn, and Tom Doak. It was Mr. Doak’s idea, in 1999, to relocate the blue and white tee markers on the first hole to the front portion of the putting green. Like I said: quirky. On top of all that, according to club legend, ACCC was the place where the terms “birdie” and “eagle” were first used to describe a score of 1-and 2-under par on a hole.
From the back tees, Atlantic City Country Club measures 6,577 yards (three other tees are available). That may sound short but considering the stiff wind that comes in off Lakes Bay to the east (with gorgeous views of the city’s skyline beyond) the course can play much longer than its yardage. For the most part, the course is fairly flat and pretty much wide open. However there’s water and wetlands in play on several holes, and the greens are well bunkered and well sloped. The best holes, I thought, were the five par-3s (yes, five). Several are perched, into the wind and well-guarded, and the putting surfaces look tinier than a tea cup. Due in part to its history, challenge, and how much fun it is to play, Atlantic City Country Club was named by Golf Digest the “best public access course” in 2012.
A NOT-SO-DISTANT SHORE
Two courses that are polar opposites of ACCC are Shore Gate Golf Club in Ocean View, 30 miles south of Atlantic City, and Ballamor Golf Club in Egg Harbor, 25 miles northwest. Instead of flat terrain, Shore Gate moves up and down like many of the courses to be found in North Carolina — one of my favorite places to play golf. Even better, it looks and feels like North Carolina. Honestly, I couldn’t believe I was in New Jersey. Opened in 2002 and designed by Ron Fream and David Dale, Shore Gate is one of the prettiest and most enjoyable courses I’ve played in quite some time. As is often the case in North Carolina (and Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana and northern Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin), tall, beautiful trees line most of the holes here. And there are bun- kers galore (maybe too many of them, in my opinion), including a number of big, very attractive but difficult fairway bunkers. Yet, the holes are wide enough that I found it fairly easy to work my way around all of the sand. Water is also in play on eight of the holes but, again, if played from the appropriate tees, it’s not that hard to keep your ball in play and avoid some big numbers.
From the tips, Shore Gate stretches out to 7,277 yards. However, four other tees are available that measure between 6,794 yards and 5,284. I played the course from the 5,940-yard “senior” tees (actually a couple of hun- dred yards longer than I normally play) and I found it quite manageable. To put it another way, Shore Gate is definitely challenging but it also gives less talented players like me a chance to post a decent score. Like Shore Gate, Ballamor is a big, beautiful golf course that’s carved out of a thick forest. Opened in 2001, Ballamor is the work of architect Dan Schlegel. Measuring 7,100 yards from the back tees (four others are available), this wonderfully conditioned golf course features extremely wide fairways, large, undulating putting surfaces, and numerous well- placed bunkers. Ballamor is tough but it’s a really good golf course and everything about it says “private” not “public.”
THE HILLS ARE ALIVE
Two other courses in the Atlantic City area that are fun to play but a notch or two below Shore Gate and Ballamor are Vineyard Golf at Renault and Running Deer. Vineyard Golf (yes, I know: an odd name), also in Egg Harbor, was designed by Edward Shearon and opened in 2004. Just over 7,200 yards from the tips (three other tees are available), Renault is very hilly and fairly wide open. The steep terrain, not surprisingly, results in many of the holes playing much longer than their
yardages and often the need for one or two more clubs than normal on approach shots. As the old saying goes, however, “what goes up must come down,” and that makes the downhill holes here the most fun to play — such as the par-3 13th and par-5 18th. The vistas from the golf course, by the way, of the Renault vineyard, the clubhouse and the fine dining restaurant across the street, are very pretty. Running Deer Golf Club is another interesting story. Originally designed and built by hand by a local resident named Ed Carman (who it appears eventually ran out of money or knowledge or both after 20 or so years), Running Deer is now one of four courses owned and operated by Ron Jaworski Golf. Mr. Jaworski, as you may know, is a former quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles and a current NFL analyst for ESPN. Running Deer is a course with two distinctly different nines: the front is rough-looking and narrow; the back nine is wider, more playable and in much better condition. Also different are the putting surfaces and the amount of sand in play. On the front (actually through the 11th hole), many of the greens are severely sloped and there are tons of bunkers. Why this is, I can’t imagine. Why the 10th hole, for example — a par-4 of 379 yards from the white tees — needs 14 bunkers is a mystery to me. This is especially puzzling since pace of play and maintenance costs are two of the biggest problems in the game. From the 12th hole on, however, Running Deer features fewer bunkers and less demanding greens. It’s certainly not easy, but that’s when it becomes much more enjoyable and fun to play.
JERSEY’S SEASIDE STUNNER
Even though it ate my lunch, the course I had the most fun playing while visiting Atlantic City was the Bay Course at Seaview Hotel and Golf Club in Galloway (10 miles northwest of downtown). Built in 1915 and designed by Donald Ross, the Bay Course is one of two layouts at this very famous resort (the Pines Course was designed by Howard Toomey and William Flynn and opened in 1929). It’s quaint and it’s quirky (some might even say “goofy”) but it’s a load of fun to play. And even though it only measures 6,366 yards from the back tees (two other tees are available), it is one tough little golf course. The site of the ShopRite Classic on the LPGA Tour the last few years (won this past May by Stacy Lewis), Seaview’s Bay Course features rectangular-shaped tees, high, gnarly native grasses guarding many of the holes, well-placed bunkers and small, sometimes crazily-sloped greens. On occasion — just like we saw during the recent U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 — funky fall-offs around the putting surfaces come into play as well. What it takes to play the Bay Course well is a good short game. And brother, if you don’t have it, you’ve had it. Trust me: I know. Located as it is along Reeds Bay (offering wonderful views of the city skyline), wind is another hazard to contend with at the Bay Course. When all is said and done, however, no matter how good or ghastly you play at this historic little tract, you will come away thinking that it was definitely worth the trip.
That goes for Atlantic City, too.